By C.J. Hirschfield
This Friday (on the Ides of March, of all dates) Children’s Fairyland will host a production of Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," performed by the esteemed San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.
The audience? Nearly 400 Oakland second- and third-graders and their teachers.
After the free show, we will lead related activities to foster literacy and creative play. Students from Bella Vista, Hoover, Emerson, Cleveland and Prescott elementary schools will receive transportation passes generously provided by BART and their teachers have been offered an interactive curriculum to use in their classes before and after their visit.
But is Shakespeare appropriate for young kids - especially inner-city kids?
The experts at the Shakespeare Festival would respond with an emphatic “yes.” They’ve been using the Bard’s actual text with grades two and up for 20 years in their summer camp and after-school programs. Kids are quickly drawn in through movement, speech and performance and Midsummer’s hilarious interactions and confusions (set in an enchanted forest, no less) are considered by the pros to be the perfect introduction to Shakespeare for a new generation.
And it doesn’t hurt that the professionally directed, acted and costumed show is “circus-arts influenced,” according to the company.
Fairyland’s own Children’s Theatre director, Doyle Ott, has more than a passing understanding of Shakespeare’s drama, having both performed and taught his work. He has no doubt but that the kids will “get it,” and be the better for it.
Doyle points out that Shakespeare’s language is the basis of modern English and that we are still using many of his words and phrases. Shakespeare wrote popular plays that survived because they’re so entertaining.
“For every lofty bit of poetry, there’s a sword fight, or someone falling or someone tricking someone,” Doyle says. “And at the heart of the "Midsummer" story, there are two parents having an argument. Kids get that.”
Doyle adds that all of the stories and cartoons familiar to kids draw in some way on the structure of Shakespeare’s plots.
“They’ll recognize the language because it’s in the DNA of how we tell stories on stage or screen,” he says. He’s confident that our visitors will have a good time that translates into positive associations with Shakespeare, so the next time they encounter a Shakespeare play they won’t be intimidated.
“And hey,” Doyle says, “they’re coming to a beautiful theater in a cool park to watch crazy people playing tricks on each other!” Obviously, he’s not worried about anyone leaving disappointed.
Doyle tells me that the play we’ll be presenting defined the Victorian concept of a fairyland.
“Without this widely accepted model, there probably wouldn’t be a Children’s Fairyland,” he adds.
After the performance, the kids will visit with our donkeys (a member of whose species figures prominently in the play), participate in a scavenger hunt to find plants at Fairyland that are named in the play, and even play a “Mad Libs” interactive writing game based on Midsummer.
Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing.” To us, that includes actual playing, which is exactly what we’ll be doing after the curtain goes down and the kids get to romp in a Fairyland designed especially for them.